A shocking test of the Taser – and why police want more of them

Can officers justify the weapon’s increased use? Jamie Merrill is put in charge for a Met simulation

Jamie Merrill@Jamie_Merrill
Monday 11 November 2013 19:10

A drunken man is reported behaving suspiciously in an underground car park in East London. Two police officers respond. The situation quickly escalates, a knife is drawn and within minutes a Taser-trained officer discharges his 50,000-volt weapon.

Metropolitan Police officers in the capital have discharged Tasers 212 times so far this year, according to new figures. Thankfully this incident did not make up one of those statistics, but was part of a training session to which The Independent was granted rare access yesterday.

The scenario, which forms part of a one-day refresher for some of London's 3,750 Taser officers, came only weeks after a London Assembly report criticised Scotland Yard for "failing to make the case" for the weapons, and a Home Office report detailed how their use has more than doubled between 2009 and 2011.

All the talk at the Met's west London training centre was about a real-life incident in the capital on Sunday night.

In hushed tones, the instructors discussed how a suspect had been Tasered in south London after attempting to murder a police officer.

The officer who fired that Taser was likely trained by the team instructing me today and perhaps by Pc Steve Gunn, my "partner" for the day.

With the officer and his Taser under my command, I was ordered to approach and deal with the car park drunk.

Despite years of service, Pc Gunn has never discharged his Taser outside of training, but as my attempts at verbal reasoning fail and the suspect brings a knife to his wrist, I order him to first draw, then fire his Taser.

His cartridge is a blank - but the result is still startling and the experience, as the "stooge" feigns electrocution and pain, deeply unnerving.

Thankfully the post-incident analysis confirms my use of force was proportionate. It's what Pc Steve calls a "good result", but it's a contrived situation and one that's clearly part of an effort to "sell" the device, which is now carried by up to 128 police officers in the capital at any one time.

One of those is Pc Tom Harding, one of four officers who were stabbed by paranoid schizophrenic Christopher Haughton in a butcher's shop in Kingsbury, Harrow in 2011.

"Kingsbury was horrible because I was so helpless," he said. "It was a routine call that escalated out of control and I didn't have the tools to deal with it. It was my colleagues that were brave that day. Now, though, I feel like I've got the equipment, so that doesn't have to happen again."

Today the Metropolitan Police Federation repeated its long-standing call for Tasers to be issued to all police officers, but DCC Simon Chesterman, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, is not convinced. He said that while 11 per cent of police nationally are now Taser trained, he was still "cautious" and had "reservations about issuing each and every officer with a Taser".

Oliver Sprague, from Amnesty International UK, sits on the MET's newly established Taser Scrutiny Board. He said: "We're not opposed to the use of Taser when in the hands of highly trained officers in response to imminent threats to life… our main issue is that all Taser-equipped officer need to be trained to same standard as firearms-trained officers."

Prior to the event Sophie Khan, a solicitor-advocate and legal director of the Police Action Centre, which represents people who have been Tasered by the police, dismissed it "a PR attack" in the wake of critical London Assembly and Home Office reports.

She added: "The refresher training is one day watching a video without any kind of accreditation and my argument… is that Taser officers should have to be to be accredited every six months just like firearms officers."